Peep into those derelict windows of the haunted Haggerston and Kingsland Estates, and you will come across ghosts. But those ghosts lived full and rich lives, and that is what Andrea Luka Zimmerman has set out to immortalise. Zimmerman has spent the last 7 years leading up to the Haggerston Estate’s demolition documenting the lives of her neighbours, listening to their memories, and picking her way through their unique, assorted lives. The spectacular result is ESTATE, A REVERIE: a poetic journey up staircases, through front doors, out windows and over balconies exploring what decades of compact London life looks like when it comes to a close.
‘It’s time to go’, she states in the opening voice over, as the camera travels through a tunnel over a canal. The residents had a time bomb placed on their lives at home, the span of which appears next to their names every time a new face is introduced. The filmmaker’s own time there was 17 years. Does the eradication of a space take with it the memories that were made there?
It’s hard to imagine a film about the destruction of hundreds of people’s homes as anything other than deeply depressing, and inextricably linked to the destruction of many of our buildings (particularly social housing) in London that give it the character we know and love. But Zimmerman has captured something not quite so – the spirit of community, ever growing in the face of threat. Once the residents were given free reign of their space for the first time, when London and Quadrant Housing Association (L&Q) took over from the council in 2007 and slated the Estates for demolition, people seized the opportunity to host bonfires and film screenings, barbecues and theatrical performances. They painted their exterior walls and played music from balconies. Once the constraints were lifted, the residents felt able to trust each other. So what was the true enemy of a functioning community?
ESTATE, A REVERIE’s true illumination is on the motives of Hackney council that sold off the estate to L&Q. These social flats, half of which were built in the 1930’s and half after World War II, were built-to-last, neo-Georgian style designs, from a blueprint of new social housing that allowed the design to be adapted according to its location’s needs. What a wonderful idea. The Estates quickly earned themselves a reputation for being heroin pits of crime and no-go-zones for most. But the true crime was the isolating of the site by the council who left it rotting for so long and pressured residents for so many years that they had no choice but to agree to demolition and relocation. They had no strength left to fight what felt like the inevitable. In the end, this exciting venture into social housing ended in nothing but abandonment. Not just of the physical structures themselves – spacious, sturdy, indented with the democratic decisions of the area – but also the abandonment of all the people living there. You’re not worth regenerating.
Zimmerman re-writes the popular negative opinion of council estate life, moving away from the hard gritty British aesthetic that it’s always defined in and portraying it instead almost like a sad fairy tale. What she has captured is a unique time in a place rejuvenated from it’s forgotten slump by the prospect of the end, suddenly alive and buzzing with a frenzy of interaction, frantic in its disbelief and disorder, punctured with folk-like stories and songs, strong in its sense of natural community. Of course there are moments of real biting sadness, and lingering takes that capture the reality of loss in all senses of the word. But as we return to the canal tunnel, retracting this time away from the light, we remember that time is only malleable in this medium of film, and for the residents it really is time to go. Their lives, and hope for the future, are as real and present as ever despite this.
“Knowing the previous work of its creators, I believe this project will achieve something very significant for the times we are living in. It will remind us - and how appropriate this is for the medium of film - that, both politically and humanly, the past is not behind us, not obsolescent, but beside us and urgent.” John Berger